Jakub Józef Orliński: “Vedro con mio diletto” from Il Giustino (Antonio Vivaldi)

There are times when I think that a music-business story is “too good to fact-check,” and this is one of them. Young counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński agreed to substitute for an ensemble that could not appear for what Orliński believed would be the radio-only live broadcast of an outdoor afternoon concert in the south of France. The New Yorker picks up the story (after mentioning that Orliński was, on the day of the concert, nursing a mild hangover):

Orliński put on baggy shorts and beat-up sneakers, and rolled up the sleeves of a crumpled tattersall shirt: this was radio, after all, and it was ninety degrees outside. Only when he and his pianist, Alphonse Cémin, who was in shorts and flip-flops, arrived at the recording venue—a courtyard with a small audience—did they learn that the performance was also to be streamed on Facebook Live. It was too late for Orliński to change clothes, and so he sang just as he was—unshaved, and dressed as if ready for a day of sleeping it off under the Provençal plane trees.

This is obviously a superb job of singing; the YouTube view count of 4.7 million views is something I find very heartening. That’s in part because counter-tenors are in a way like harpsichords. In both cases, at times there seems to be a parity between the numbers of people who can enjoy the sound, and those who feel compelled to flee from it. And in that regard, I would have preferred a Baroque continuo rather than a Steinway grand (Vivaldi’s opera dates from 1724), but the piano accompaniment is very sensitive. And one must keep in mind that Orliński was substituting on less than 24 hours’ notice. (I do crack up every time I see the “page turner” reach up and touch the iPad.) Also, for an outdoor concert, what a lovely recording job! More, after the jump.
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How China Made the Piano Its Own

Yuja Wang, courtesy of Medici TV

This is a first—I can’t ever remember reading an article in The Economist that brought tears to my eyes… . The article in question is, to use academic terminology, a “reception history” of the piano in Chinese culture from the mid-19th century to the present. Here’s the vignette from China’s 1966-1976 “Cultural Revolution” that brought out my handkerchief:

Lu Hong’en, the conductor of the Shanghai Symphony, was thrown into a cell. He continued to hum Beethoven there. After he tore up a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book,” he was sentenced to death. Lu told a fellow prisoner: “If you get out of here alive, would you do two things? Find my son, and visit Austria, the home of music. Go to Beethoven’s tomb and lay a bouquet of flowers. Tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa Solemnis as he went to his execution.” Lu was shot within days. His cellmate reached the Viennese grave three decades later.

You will have to read the rest of the article for yourself, here (you probably will have to register to read five free articles a month). I consider this article to be required reading for cultural literacy in classical music in today’s world. The author or authors point out that China is not only turning out star performers (such as Yuja Wang, pictured above); the creation in China of music for the piano has reached critical mass.

The one caveat or clarification I want to offer is that the article states, without elaboration, that the state-run piano company Pearl River (the world’s largest producer) “builds for Steinway.” That statement is, in my opinion, accurate; but also, potentially very misleading. Pearl River does not make Steinway pianos, or even parts or components for Steinway pianos.

What is going on here is that the Steinway company wants its dealers also to be able to offer pianos that are more affordable. Pianos with, if perhaps not Steinway’s imprimatur, at least their nihil obstat. Those brands are the “Boston” and “Essex” pianos. The Essex pianos are “designed by Steinway” and sold by Steinway, but manufactured in China by Pearl River.

The linked-to article also includes an embedded playlist of relevant music and performances, which in and of itself is a reason to click through.

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“The Song of Names” (film)

Center: Dovidl (played by Luke Doyle)
© Sabrina Lantos. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Classical-music fans, especially fans of the violin and its literature, will want to know about the upcoming (opening in selected cities December 25, 2019; nationwide in January) big-screen theatrical release of the film The Song of Names, based on Norman Lebrecht’s prize-winning novel of the same name. The director is François Girard (The Red Violin, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould); for that reason we can have a high degree of confidence that great care has been taken in getting the musical details right. But all that is not to say that people whose primary musical orientation is other than classical will not also appreciate the film. The plot is compelling, the characters are intriguing, the cinematography is atmospheric, and the film score is by Howard Shore, of Lord of the Rings fame.

Here’s what the film’s US distributor Sony Pictures Classics says about the setup of the film’s action, much of which is told in flashbacks:

Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) has been haunted throughout his life by the mysterious disappearance of his “brother” and extraordinary best friend, a Polish Jewish virtuoso violinist, Dovidl Rapaport, who vanished shortly before the 1951 London debut concert that would have launched his brilliant career. Thirty-five years later, Martin discovers that Dovidl (Clive Owen) may still be alive, and sets out on an obsessive intercontinental search to find him and learn why he left.

What interests me most, of course, is how successful the production crew has been at allowing the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that the actors on screen are actually playing the violin. Based on what I have seen, I think they have done a very impressive job. Further explanation, the trailer, and a mini-feature on the teenage actor who is also a genuine violin virtuoso, after the jump.

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Tenebrae Choir: “Miserere mei, Deus” (Allegri)

Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” (Have mercy on me, Lord) is one of the most famous pieces of Late-Renaissance polyphonic a cappella choral music. Either despite or perhaps because of its difficulty, it is also one of the most frequently-recorded pieces of sacred music. The linked-to Wiki gives an excellent overview, so I encourage you to read it. In an interesting historical synchronicity, the most often-cited date for Allegri’s composition of the “Miserere” is 1638, the same year in which Roger Williams (the English lawyer and divine; not the 1950s-1960s lounge pianist) co-founded The First Baptist Church in America. Which was about as distant as one could get (at least within European civilization) from the creation of the “Miserere,” both geographically and culturally.

Another famous synchronicity or at least connection is that while on a tour of Italy, the 14-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited the Vatican and heard the “Miserere” on a Wednesday and wrote it down from memory. He returned on Friday to check his work. Given that the “Miserere” had been the “secret piece” of the Sistine Chapel choir, one might have feared for the young Mozart. But, in the event, Pope Clement XIV was a good sport about it, later summoning Mozart to receive the Order of the Golden Spur. It is through the young Mozart’s sharing his work with colleagues that the piece became known throughout Europe; Liszt and Mendelssohn both transcribed it.

There is no shortage of very good performances of this work, and quite a few great performances. I am posting this particular video because it is (by far) the best performance video I have seen; indeed, it is slugged as “A Film by Jon Coates.” The singing is truly extraordinary. However, the pedant within me wishes to point out that in view of what I call “Musical Pitch Inflation” over the past 400 years, I think the consensus of scholars today is that the actual pitch that the solo singer in Mozart’s time sang at the climaxes would, on a modern piano, be a High B, not a High C. And I for one would have no problem with an historically pitch-correct performance.

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Cole Porter on a Steinway, vol. 1

 

Various: Cole Porter on a Steinway, vol. 1
Solo-piano transcriptions of show tunes by Cole Porter
Steinway & Sons catalog number 30116
Release date: December 6, 2019

Recorded at Steinway Hall, New York City, July 2014-April 2019.

Well, here’s a real winner!

Steinway & Sons’ piano recordings—especially the ones that they themselves produce and engineer at the new Steinway Hall performance and recording facility in New York City—are of reliably superb audio quality. That said, I hasten to point out that Steinway’s releases that were not recorded in Steinway Hall are often (but not always) just as good in terms of sound quality; they are merely “different.”

I think that the Steinway recordings made at the Shalin Liu performance hall in Rockport, Massachusetts are objectively as “good” as the Steinway Hall ones. Subjectively, I have a (slight) personal preference for the slightly more distant and bloom-y sound of Shalin Liu. If anyone prefers the slightly more in-focus Steinway Hall sound, I will not lose any sleep.

I also must point out that the sonic differences I am noting (and such is the case with many audio differences) are minor; they might not reveal themselves to casual listeners who only give a casual listen.

By this point, Steinway has released well over 100 CDs. Not all of them have totally won me over to their artistic standpoints (of course, such are matters of taste, and you are free to disagree). But… when the stars and planets line up as they do here… Wow!

This collection of solo-piano treatments of famous Cole Porter show tunes (by three different pianists, Adam Birnbaum, Jed Distler, and Simon Mulligan) presents, in spot-on high-resolution (24/96) sound, standout Cole Porter interpretations that range from the wistful and pensive to the liltingly bouncy. All delivered via sloshingly-full buckets of piano technique and always with a refined musical taste that might have made Cole Porter smile.

You can hear the entire album right now, at no charge via Steinway Streaming.

Cole Porter on a Steinway, Vol. 1 goes on sale December 6, 2019 (downloads only; mp3 on Amazon; 24/96 FLAC on HDTracks).

More pensations, and sound samples, after the jump. Continue Reading →

The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away. Continue Reading →

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Hymn of the Cherubim (from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 41)

This YouTube music video has been viewed more than 5 million times (and there have been more than 3,500 comments posted), both of which indicate that people find that this music engages their emotions to a remarkable extent. Of course, I am speaking in the context of a genre (sacred classical music) that is a subset of a genre (classical music) that is, at best, a minority enthusiasm. What is classical music’s market share today? One source pegs classical’s share of “total music album consumption” (whatever that is) for the year 2018 at (drum roll, please): 1%.

In stark contrast, US rock band One Republic’s official YouTube music video for their single “Counting Stars” has had 2.8 BILLION views. Sigh.

I refuse to take heart from the fact that there is a genre that is even less popular than classical music, in part because that poor tattered remnant is what is left of New Age. Point five of one percent (0.5%)! But I am sure that the music on the above video would warm many a New Age heart. I have previously written and said, many times, that Renaissance Polyphony was the original “New Age” music. (I know—the above is not from the Renaissance, and also it doesn’t really contain much in the way of polyphony—what’s going on is more like slow-moving harmonies; but the spirit is the same.)

I think that there are many well-known composers (but of course there are also many exceptions to this little rule of mine) whose best-known work or works are not representative of the majority of their output. Furthermore, I believe that the better-known the most famous work is, the more likely is the case that the famous work doesn’t provide a ghost of a clue to the greatness of that composer’s best works. The poster child for this syndrome (of course) is poor Maurice Ravel, whose Bolero is… what it is… . That said, listening to Bolero, you would never guess that the same guy could write all of Le tombeau de Couperin; Miroirs; Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2; and Ravel’s String Quartet.

The same goes for Edward Elgar. “Land of Hope and Glory” is the soundtrack to a kindergarten “graduation” from a Peanuts animated special, which I think is a sly allusion to the number of “real” graduations where it can be heard. But nowhere in evidence in “Land of Hope and Glory” is the greatness of Elgar’s cello concerto, or his violin concerto, or his two symphonies. To say nothing of The Dream of Gerontius.

By now you might have guessed where I have been going with this. Tchaikovsky’s Overture “1812”—and The Nutcracker—almost everyone has to agree, don’t sound like they came from the pen of the chap who wrote the music in the video above. In Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim” there is no bombast and no sugary cuteness. The entire Liturgy is worth your hearing it. After the jump, I will tell you what I have been able to learn about the recording on this video, and offer buying (or streaming suggestions). Continue Reading →

Steinway & Sons Streaming: An Excellent No-Cost Music Source

Steinway & Sons’ Spirio Playback Piano.
Image courtesy of Steinway.

I felt a rueful twinge when legendary piano builder Steinway & Sons took itself private and as a result was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. My nostalgic or sentimental reason was that Steinway & Sons’ NYSE stock-ticker symbol long had been LVB, an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven’s piano sonatas are generally regarded as the distilled essence of greatness in piano music.

Apart from that, as far as I can tell, jumping out of the goldfish bowl that is the NYSE has done wonders for Steinway. In 2014, Steinway came out with the Spirio, a piano (available in two sizes) that includes the most sophisticated piano-playback technology (a non-MIDI system) ever to reach commercial critical mass. More recently, Steinway has begun offering a record-and-playback version of the Spirio. Steinway’s biggest challenge at the moment is building enough Spirio pianos to meet the demand. Good for them.

Under New Management, Steinway also launched their own CD label (they have also released a few SACDs). They embarked upon an ambitious recording agenda, for which they built a new, state-of-the-art performance-and-recording hall. So that you can hear the complete recordings before you buy the CDs or download the audio files, Steinway has created a dedicated streaming site that offers commercial-free play of complete albums from Steinway & Sons Recordings. There are also informative reviews posted for many of the albums. Steinway & Sons CDs are available from Amazon; hi-res files, from 24/44.1 to 24/192 (varying by title) are available from HDTracks.

I asked Eric Feidner, Steinway’s VP for Music, Media, and Technology, to tell me about what “getting into the record business” has meant for the 166-year old firm.

At Steinway, our very long history with performing artists goes back to the 1800s, with legendary pianists such as Anton Rubinstein and Ignace Paderewski. In recent decades, the “Steinway Artist” program has been a central part of the company. We started the record label about 10 years ago as a natural outgrowth of our relationships with Steinway Artists.

As we moved into the development of the Steinway Spirio, we faced a critical need to create a catalog of “high resolution” music to embed in the world’s finest player piano—we send our Spirio owners new playlists every month. Because there was no such content available elsewhere, we had to build our own. There are now close to 4,000 works in the Spirio catalog.

The Spirio piano’s development and the Spirio catalog’s development processes inevitably became symbiotic with the record label, as through these, we developed techniques to produce commercial audio recordings with far greater efficiency and with remarkably consistent levels of technical and sonic quality. Making recordings and building pianos are now very closely intertwined at Steinway & Sons.

After the jump, recommendations for a baker’s dozen (13) great CDs that you can hear in their entirety at no cost! Continue Reading →

George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road”

The Beatles’ final studio album Abbey Road was released on LP in the United States on September 26, 1969. As will be discussed after the jump, audio-industry maven Philip O’Hanlon has pulled together (under the “Magnum Opus Rediscovered” banner) a coast-to-coast Abbey Roadlistening party” for Saturday, September 28, 2019, in which 40 audio dealers will play the remastered album on “fine audio” (or “high end”) equipment, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM (local times).

Which is all fine and good. But I for one wish that the participating audio shops would extend the duration of their events by not all that much time (32 minutes), and spin what is to my mind, far and away, the best Abbey Road cover album ever, George Benson‘s woefully under-appreciated The Other Side of Abbey Road. Will they, won’t they? Matters not. It’s easy to add this gem to your collection!

Starting only three weeks after Abbey Road‘s US début (October 22-23 & November 4-5, 1969), producer Creed Taylor (who produced this record for Herb Alpert’s label A&M) convened a rather astonishing gathering of participating musicians at engineer Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio. Don Sebesky was in charge of their comings and goings, in that he was the arranger. (Benson sang, as well as playing guitar.)

How’s this for an (incomplete) lineup? Ray Barretto, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws, Idris Muhammad, George Ricci (brother of Ruggiero Ricci), and Emanuel Vardi? More information (and sound samples) after the jump. Continue Reading →

Rick Beato: A Musical and Audio Analysis of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”

Through Arturo Delmoni, I got to know Boris Goldovsky (1908-2001). I treasured our get-togethers and phone chats (and I also did some intellectual-property legal work for him). Although our acquaintance was, by most measures, rather fleeting, the time I spent with Mr. Goldovsky had an outsized effect on me. Just to shake hands with someone who, as a child, had fled Moscow with his mother during the October Revolution… . To say nothing of the fact that, before his small-‘e’ evangelical endeavors had had the result that, in the United States, his name would be inextricably intertwined with the concept of “Opera,” the young Boris Goldovsky’s piano teacher in Berlin had been Artur Schnabel.

Therefore, through Schnabel’s teacher Theodor Leschetizky, there are, in total, only four people shaking hands between Beethoven and me. (That’s because Leschetizky’s teacher Carl Czerny had been a student of Beethoven’s. So, the handshake chain goes: John Marks-(1)Mr. Goldovsky-(2)Schnabel-(3)Leschetizky-(4)Czerny-Beethoven.) And, not to lay it on too thick, but: the young Leschetizky’s concerto-début performance was conducted by… Mozart’s son.

Mr. Goldovsky’s claim to widespread fame (as distinct from his reputation among opera cognoscenti) was his intermission feature during the Saturday-afternoon live radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which were sponsored by Texaco, the gasoline company. (He also hosted the “Opera Quiz” feature for a time.) Mr. Goldovsky would sit at the piano (a Knabe in a rehearsal room, which always made me well-disposed to that maker) and give a live “Musical and Dramatic Analysis of (the name of that Saturday’s opera).” Those features were brilliant, as well as witty. As examples, here he is on the operas Esclarmonde and Lulu.

I will never forget Mr. G’s quip that, for all his musical creativity, Wagner seemed not to have a clue about population genetics (a reference to the brother-sister twins Sieglinde and Siegmund’s being the incestuous parents of Siegfried). I think it fair to say that the consensus is that Mr. Goldovsky played a major role (and perhaps the major role) in making live performances of grand opera both comprehensible to and aspirational for the broad middle of American society, from the immediately post-WWII years though the 1980s. Mr. Goldovsky also deserves much credit for championing the cause of a young African-American singer, Robert McFerrin, who became the first African-American man to sing a title role at the Met, in 1955. (Robert McFerrin’s son Robert, Jr. took the professional name Bobby McFerrin.)

Courtesy of Jack Baruth‘s personal blog, I have now become virtually acquainted with Rick Beato (pr. “Bee-ah-to”); and let me say this:

What Mr. Goldovsky was to opera (the authoritative “explainer,” par excellence), Rick Beato is to rock-and-roll.

More, after the jump. Continue Reading →